Unity: The Family That Is the UK’s OIA
Fewer delegates at this year’s OIA Conference than in previous ones.

Just over a month ago a handful of outdoor industry professionals and I attended the OIA Conference in Macclesfield.  Yes, it was a handful rather than a throbbing mass because the event clashed with the onslaught of the Coronavirus and Boris Johnson’s announcement to the nation that “from tomorrow, we will no longer be supporting mass gatherings”.  That was the beginning of the erosion of our current social freedom.  Many decided to stay away in the wake of the crisis – one delegate’s head count came to 69 – and by the next day a further haemorrhage of attendees dwindled numbers further.  Nevertheless, this ranks as one of my favourite OIA Conferences.

I’m not alone, Chris Lines of Right Lines agrees “I actually thought that the OIA Conference was the best I’ve been to.  Clearly it was totally overtaken by events, but the event was a great example of how our industry is able to rally around in times of crisis”.

And he’s right.  I remember, way back in 2000, when our OIA was lost.  It wasn’t for the want of trying but those in charge just couldn’t quite nail it.  How to create an association that was active, noisy and effective?  One that lobbied the Government and had support from the industry itself?  We needed an association that attracted new members each year rather than lost them.  That was where we were in 2001 when Foot and Mouth wreaked havoc on our industry.  How different things are today in the midst of another – albeit more devastating – crisis.

The restrictions will end and there will be a huge yearning and appreciation for the outdoors like never before. So, let’s hold onto that thought.”

The first big announcement from Boris Johnson on the 16th March: the first significant step towards the inevitable lockdown.

This year’s conference was frank and honest, a heart-to-heart as it were, as many of the speakers had fallen by the wayside.  Andrew Denton outlined his take on things gleaned from what was out there at the time.  He admitted it was confusing, a lot of the media chatter was extraneous.  Denton felt a concise format would work better, the creation of an OIA hub perhaps?  Just over a week later Marta’s first Covid-19 newsletter landed in my inbox packed with helpful links to Government grants, advice and a breakdown of the news in an easy-to-read format.  The hub had arrived and it’s been arriving daily ever since. 

“And we’ll try and get an official statement saying that if you are symptom free you can go into the hills and be outdoors,” said Andrew Denton.  I don’t know if he got that statement but I do know that today we have that freedom to an extent.  That one hour of exercise outdoors is treasured by millions.  Oh and how delicious the outdoors is currently looking, bathed in sunshine with its accessibility curbed.  As Sam Fernando, Chair, OIA Development Board says in Outdoor i , “The restrictions will end and there will be a huge yearning and appreciation for the outdoors like never before.  So, let’s hold onto that thought”.  I’m holding onto it Sam. 

Being in a room full of like-minded people when the full scale of the issue started to unfold was a huge comfort for me.  From retailers to brands and media, we all came together to share our opinions, concerns and solutions in a dynamic and uncertain environment.  In real time we learned from delegates that retailers were already cancelling orders, from retailers that sales were plummeting and from concerned employers about the future of their specialist staff.  All issues were met with empathy and compassion in the solid framework of our OIA.

So, thank you UK outdoor industry for paying your membership fees and picking the OIA up from its turn of the millennium doldrums.  Thank you too Andrew Denton for the tireless London visits and Government lobbying.  You’ve crafted our collective voice from nothing to an authoritative vociferation.  We have that seat at the table that we never had before; the ear of those with influence and gravitas.  And thank you fellow delegates for being there, supporting me as things unfurled that week.  This will end and we’ll learn from it together.  We’ll have new perspectives and I just know that they will be better ones.  I’m hopeful the climate will benefit from this turn of events too.  We’ll face our challenges together, as one big OIA family and once again we will be able to play in our beautiful British outdoor landscape.

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